Despite the convergence of crises in professional journalism that have led to mass lay-offs in many newsrooms, the demand for journalism school places remains high, even as debate about the value and legitimacy of university-level journalism education continues internationally
So, how are journalism schools adjusting to the changing demands of an industry still in the throws of transformation? Emily Bennett reports.
Jeff Jarvis, who is a Professor and Director at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY) says journalism schools focused on innovative practice are an important source of potential employees for newsrooms in the re-booting phase.
“The industry should look to schools to find new sources of innovation, to reset journalism’s relationship with the public it serves, to experiment with new forms of news, to explore new business models for news, and to train and retrain professionals already in the field,” Jarvis said in an interview with the World Editors Forum.
Jarvis believes it is important to look at not “what the industry is [demanding] but what it should be demanding.”
According to Jarvis, CUNY is the first journalism school to offer a Masters and Certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism and the school is currently seeking approval for a Masters in Social Journalism, which will involve the study and practice of engaged communities.
“In social journalism, we plan to teach journalists to start their work not by creating content but by listening to communities. They will recast journalism as an industry from being a mass manufacturer of content to being a service for individuals and communities,” he said.
But educating future journalists is a much more complex task than it used to be. Professor of Professional Practice and Director of Future Journalism at the Annenberg Innovation Lab, Gabriel Kahn, told the World Editors Forum that the industry demands a lot from journalism graduates today.
“Recent graduates are expected to arrive with skills that many veterans don’t possess – coding, web publishing and multimedia reporting. It’s a heavy load to bear, but it’s essential if the industry is going to modernise,” Kahn said.
Skills that were not included in journalism curricula just a few years ago are now being taught, according to Kahn. These include data journalism, coding and data visualisations. There is also a new emphasis on experimentation, interdisciplinary work and entrepreneurship.
“The challenges are always the same, however it can be difficult to drive change through a university bureaucracy. Revising the curriculum now must be a continuous process, not a triennial one. In addition, faculty skills now must be updated continually. It’s a lot to manage but it’s also tremendously exciting,” Kahn said.
In Australia, a national study on Graduate Qualities and Journalism Curriculum Renewal was recently released by University of Wollongong journalism academics Dr Marcus O’Donnell and Professor Stephen Tanner.
According to the report, based on extensive interviews with both editors and journalism educators, while there is an increasing emphasis on digital storytelling, traditional journalism skills remain fundamentally important. This is particularly true at a time when the number of sub-editors is being reduced in newsrooms internationally.
“There has been a strong feeling among many journalists, editors and educators that basic skills [which include but are not limited to writing, punctuation and grammar] remain more important than advanced computer literacy,” O’Donnell told the World Editors Forum.
Nevertheless, O’Donnell believes it is important for universities to look to the future.
“To focus on what people in traditional journalism want is probably not what’s best for our graduates,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell and Tanner’s research indicates that journalism education does in fact play a key role in skills-based training. The report recommends that journalism education organisations outline the diversity of courses on offer throughout the country, provide resources for designing standards-based curricula, and provide an ongoing repository for case studies in curriculum innovation.
It also highlights the importance of journalists and newsrooms being audience-focused and delivering content in multiple formats.
“With the advent of widespread community produced content, made possible through digital technologies, attention to [delivery, distribution and reception] will be critical for journalism’s professional evolution and survival,” O’Donnell said.
“They, as they always have, [want] people who can spot a story, research it and project it. But employers also now look for versatile, multi-platform skills which are well-suited to exploring and developing new ways of storytelling online,” Brock told the World Editors Forum.
According to Brock, a university environment can be beneficial for journalists as they develop these skills. “Universities can provide a platform on which practical experience, research-led teaching, and a safe environment to practice can be combined. A university also has, within its walls, experts in different fields who can broaden teaching and perspective,” he said.
“There is a real need to sort out what is a reasonable expectation of a journalism graduate, as it is often expected that they will have both a solid knowledge of specialist areas, such as economics or justice, and the capacity to work across any medium. This is too much to expect,” Harber said.
“What is most important is learning to think critically and analytically, and this is best done with a solid undergraduate degree, whether [it is] in humanities, science or any other appropriate field,” Harber says.
While some critics predict a dire future for journalism education, O’Donnell says there is evidence that interest in journalism courses has actually increased.
“Six years ago, around 50 students enrolled [in the Bachelor of Journalism program at the University of Wollongong]. In the last couple of years, maybe 70 to 75 students enrolled,” he said.
With an emergence of new roles becoming available in the journalism industry, O’Donnell believes universities should focus on the outcome of skills as opposed to graduate destinations.
“While it would be completely dishonest for journalism schools to guarantee employment at mainstream media organisations, we can guarantee that our graduates emerge with a set of key skills and have capacity to apply them in innovative ways,” he says.
Like the professional journalists exploring new opportunities in emerging fields of practice, journalism graduates have diverse employment possibilities in a growing market for innovative storytelling – which still includes traditional newsrooms, such as USA Today.
DECLARATION: Emily Bennett is a Communication and Media Studies student at the University of Wollongong (UOW), Australia, who majors in Journalism. She has just completed an internship with the World Editors Forum in Paris, which was facilitated by the editor of this blog, WAN-IFRA Research Fellow Julie Posetti. Posetti is also a journalism academic at UOW.